Author: Gabriel Wolthuis
From illustrating and authoring children’s books to producing and acting in television to creating and inspiring murals and everything in between, Hope College alum, Joel Schoon-Tanis (’89) extends his breath of talent across diverse areas of art. Schoon-Tanis’ work has been nationally recognized, including receiving National Telly awards, Emmy awards, and the “Moonbeam Children’s Book Award.” Additionally, he has even edited videography for the Detroit Lions and has been in a band! All the while, Schoon-Tanis is a full-time father! While his experiences range across diverse areas, Joel’s creative endeavor remains consistent: to make creations “with a colorful, whimsical approach, often working to view the world through a childlike lens.”
In particular, he likes to “juxtapose child-like imagery with realistic imagery,” making his pieces distinctive, vibrant, and fun to admire. It’s enjoyable for all ages, as well as profoundly biblical in its quality of being ‘child-like’. While his work is child-like, it is not childish. It exudes creativity, wonder and defiant hope, virtuous traits that Jesus perhaps alludes to when He teaches individuals the necessity of becoming like a child to enter the Kingdom.
Additionally, Joel believes that exploring the world through a whimsical style allows him to engage with complicated topics in a way that can force people to stop and think. For example, in his piece entitled Balancing the Peaceful Kingdom, Schoon-Tanis aims to represent the end times as described in Isaiah 11, where predator and prey are at peace with one another. Joel’s artistic interpretation in this painting depicts several animals stacked on top of each other as if playing a game of zoology Jenga. Obviously, the scene is ridiculous and unfathomable, which he says is precisely the point. Framing the painting as a commentary on peace, he explains that this work “accentuates the fact that peace feels impossible, because peace is active and requires enemies to work together, not just coexist and sit around”.
This commitment to having a child-like quality in his art, while a powerful means of expressing his views, often results in people overlooking the intentionality of his work. He has found that often critics of his whimsical work write it off because they don’t feel like there’s substantive meaning behind his pieces. Conversely, some opposers find Joel’s work offensive, claiming that he “makes fun of serious subjects.” Both objections are sorely superficial, and do a great disservice to the deep purpose he reflects through his unique artistic style.
Needless to say, Joel does not appreciate it when his art is put in an ideological box, especially when people label it as ‘Christian art’ — a label that carries with it a lot of connotations and built-in assumptions. “When we label art as Christian, we are already off to a bad start. I believe God works through all the world, and the separation of sacred and secular does not give God enough credit…and who gets to apply those labels? If it doesn’t have that ‘Christian’ label on it, does that mean that God can’t use it? That’s garbage!” He’s passionate about his art being an honest representation of his worldview, and any expression of Christian themes in his work is simply him using his true artistic voice.
Joel’s intentionality extends far beyond what he puts on a canvas. Joel has traveled around the world to work on art projects for different institutions, and he likes to use such occasions as opportunities for empowerment. “Recently, I’ve been doing more collaborative work with organizations. I’ve really discovered the value in helping others creatively express themselves. Collaborators may not have the technical skills that I have, but we all have that creative spark inside of us, and sometimes it just takes someone to walk alongside and help create something.”
Joel will soon be coordinating the painting of a mural at a theology school in Kenya, where he hopes to enable and empower the students to paint scenes of Jesus’ parables using their interpretation of the stories and modes of creative expression. Instead of being, in his words, “that white American guy that comes into Kenya and tells everyone what to do,” he wants to use his experience and understanding to help others find a creative voice that they may have not known they had or had license to express.
Suffice to say, there is a lot of insight to be gleaned from Joel’s life and his art, but readers hoping to be left with any satisfying conclusions may be missing the point. Peruse his extensive art portfolio by visiting his online portfolio here.
Photo credit: The Lakeshore West Michigan